Privilege and luck

Last year I attended this panel discussion of women who had radically changed their daily lives by taking on a completely different job or pursuing a passion. One women went from being a high-powered marketing executive to serving as a minister, another went from being a CPA and financial planner to running an art museum, and another sold her house, quit her consulting job, and, along with her husband and kids, traveled around the world for a year. They agreed to be on the panel to discuss their experiences, motivations, and challenges.

All of them took serious pay cuts to pursue their passions. All of them were married to spouses with good jobs (although the spouse of the woman who traveled for a year also took a year off from his job). They were all middle-aged white ladies. They all reeked of privilege, especially when they fumbled over a question from the woman who asked, “What advice do you have for young women who don’t have the resources and support you have?”

She could have been more blunt, asked, “What would do if you were a single mom without the advantage of a high income and a good education and a supportive spouse and you just worked each day to make ends meet? How would you ‘pursue your passion’ then?”

Her question and their vague responses made me flinch. They weren’t exactly starving artists, after all. It has only been in the past few years that I have realized other people see us the same way. They don’t know I grew up in a trailer, that Joe’s dad was a schizophrenic and his sister is a recovering meth addict, that I was on welfare all through college. Maybe some people see our less than blue-color backgrounds in our values or manners, but many do not.

Flash forward a few months and I’m here. After 19 years in a corporate job, I only quit after Joe sold one of his businesses and we had the cushion from that sale to alleviate some of the worry that would be induced by my lack of steady income. And my 401K, stock, money from my bonus, and our home equity. So I am embarrassed at our options, our privilege.

Then I remember these things — I am not 21 and living the life I imagined. I am 42, and it took a long time to get here. Those women on the panel may have had similar stories, but this is mine.

When I was 21, I was single, going to school full-time, and my 2-year-old daughter and I were living alone in a one-room apartment with a Murphy bed. I had two part-time jobs and student loans, both of which reduced the amount I was eligible for from welfare. I used food stamps that smelled strange and stuck together (this was before the EBT cards) to supplement my WIC vouchers, and there was never quite enough to cover expenses beyond the barest minimum. Our living room furniture included two fold-out lawn chairs. I was tired all the time.

When I graduated from college, I worked for 19 years at a corporate job and even though most of the time I didn’t like it, I did my best and worked my way up rather than clocking in and out each day. I put money toward retirement and into our home. Joe and I weren’t always happy, but we were lucky enough to find reasons to stay together for one year, then another, then 20 years.

I supported our family when Joe quit his corporate job after almost five years to start his own business, the first of many, right before 9/11 when the economy seized up during that critical fledgling stage of his business so he had to take a job selling telecommunications by cold-calling on local businesses. We almost went bankrupt and took an emergency withdrawal from my 401K to keep from losing our house.

In 2009 I went to a low-residency graduate school to get an MFA while my daughter was in high school and my son was in elementary and middle school. After I completed grad school in January 2011, I still worked five more years to pay for my own college debts, my daughter’s college tuition, other things.

And after all that I finally quit the job and changed courses. I’ve given myself a year. It’s been almost a month since I left, and I don’t miss the job at all. I get up by 8:00 a.m. and I do write every day, and it’s as hard as I imagined. I wonder if I could have done this sooner, and I know that I could have if we made certain sacrifices. Even the term sacrifices rings false, because the sacrifices would have been so slight compared to most of the world, even to most of the U.S.

So lucky, yes.

Privileged, yes.

Defensive? Well, obviously, see above.

But I only have this one life, so let’s see what I can do with it.


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